Talking Standup, Mortality, and ‘The Return’ with Judd Apatow

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If you think Judd Apatow married out of his league, might not be cut out to raise two teenage daughters, and makes his movies a bit too long, don’t worry, he already knows. Those are just a few of the topics he approaches head-on in his new Netflix standup special Judd Apatow: The Return, which premiered today. Apatow spent seven years as a young comedian before dropping the mic in 1992 to pursue writing for shows like The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show. He eventually went on to become one the most successful players in comedy film and television with cult favorites like Freaks and Geeks, critical hits like The Big Sick, and box office smashes like Knocked Up. And now, 25 years after he left standup, he’s back, “hopefully forever.” I talked to Apatow about his comeback, his lifelong obsession with comedians, and why he puts so much of his personal life in his work.

You just turned 50 and now your special is coming out. Is there any correlation between hitting the 50-year mark and making return to standup?

It wasn’t really age-driven, although maybe there was a general, “Am I ever going to do it? I might as well do it now.” Some of it had to do with the fact that I was in New York shooting Trainwreck. I was by myself without much to do, so on the way home from shooting I would stop at the Comedy Cellar and do a set. It always felt like I was funnier the next day on the set directing because I was just tuning myself in in some way.

During that time in New York, was it the first time you had been onstage during your entire gap period?

I’ve gotten up a couple of times at some spoken-word events and I did a couple of sets just to write jokes for Funny People. But those jokes weren’t for me. I was trying to write in their characters, so I would try them out onstage. So it really was the first time I had done standup since 1992.

When you left stand up in ’92 you had been doing it for what, seven years?

Yeah.

You had a couple of things that were starting to take off for you in TV. When you made that shift did you miss standup or did you feel like, “Well, I gave it seven years?”

When I stopped I felt like I was getting some great writing opportunities. I had been driving two hours to make $50 in Rancho Cucamonga and suddenly I was running a sketch show with Ben Stiller. It felt like the world was telling me that I should be behind the camera. I was also burned out because I was so obsessed with standup from the time I was about 10 years old. I was a little fried and also a little frustrated, because so many of my friends were some of the best comedians the earth has ever seen. It felt like if you were starting a band and your best friend’s band was Radiohead. You just think, “Wow, I’m not Radiohead. Should I even bother?” But now that I’m older I have a lot more to say. When I was young I just didn’t have anything to talk about. Only now do I realize what a kid I was. I didn’t have any stories, I wasn’t mad about anything, I wasn’t that weird, and that made it more difficult.

You really were a kid because you started when you were 17 or 18, right?

Yeah, I was 17, a senior in high school.

So you didn’t have a chance to grow up in comedy. You were just in that high school/college mode, got a job, and were like, “Okay, I think I’m good for now.”

Yeah, it was very exciting to run a sketch show with Ben Stiller. I couldn’t believe that was happening. Also, it was an 18-hour-a-day job, so there was no time to think about running to a club and working on my act.

You had some success as a standup when you were younger because it helped put you in the right place for some of those early writing opportunities. I know you said you didn’t have anything to talk about, but it couldn’t have been total garbage because you made it for seven years. What were you talking about at the time?

I used to see myself as a Bill Maher wannabe. He was one of the comedians I really looked up to. I thought I could be like a smart Jewish guy from the East Coast and talk about my observations of the world. I did well enough to get on Evening at The Improv and The Dennis Miller Show. I did all those shows back in the day, but when I watch it again it’s pretty cringeworthy. I’m older now and I’ve had enough life experience to have a point of view and stories to tell. It took me a long time to realize that the best thing any artist can do is just share their story. For a long time I didn’t think I was interesting. That’s just old childhood damage that made me insecure about that. Now I almost believe I’m interesting.

In the special you address that you’re somewhat famous, but not that much. You talk about a lot of your work, knowing that if you reference Knocked Up your audience will know what you’re talking about because they’re aware of your career. But beyond that, what was it that made you think you had enough material worth making a special about? Did you feel there was some type of demand or was it more like a purge where you felt you had to get all this stuff out?

I was getting really good reactions doing clubs and some theaters. I performed at Just For Laughs in 2016 and someone from Netflix happened to be there and said, “Hey if you want to do a special we’d love for you to do one.” I said “Okay, but give me a year so I can really work on it.” That’s what I did. I tried to put a massive amount of thought and effort into it, because my hope was that I could do something that was worthy to be up there with all the specials other people are making that are so incredible. I wasn’t cocky about it at all. I just thought that people are doing brilliant work and I don’t want to have the mediocre one, so I put in the time.

Now that you’ve shot your special, have you been keeping up a steady regimen of getting up?

I’ve been going up — not as often as when I was gearing up for the special, but I go to the Laugh Factory, The Improv, The Comedy Store, and I do a monthly show at Largo, which is always a benefit, which is really fun because I can invite my favorite comedians and musicians. I really enjoy producing variety shows.

You named your special The Return. Are you back for good or was this just a return?

Oh yeah, I’m going to continue doing standup hopefully forever. I don’t know at what pace, but there’s nothing I enjoy doing more than standup, that’s for sure. I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I think it’s very helpful to stay connected to the audience. It helps you stay in touch with what’s funny. If you just stay in your house all day long you can become the man on the hill who has no idea what anybody is talking about. It’s fun to talk directly to people. I think it makes my writing better.

Was there an element of you living vicariously through the TV shows and films you’ve worked on that centered around standup? I’m thinking of stuff like Funny People, Crashing, The Big Sick.

I’ve definitely always been fascinated by comedians. I feel like the job of a comedian is no different than that of a lawyer or a doctor. There’s a million shows about those professions, so there’s no reason why there can’t be movies and television shows where people’s job is that of a comedian. Comedians are fascinating. The people who want to get onstage and talk about their lives are some of the most interesting people in the world. They have interesting stories to tell, and there are usually interesting reasons why they feel the need to be standup comedians. I just always thought it was a worthy subject.

Your new special is very personal, but you’ve always interjected elements of your personal life in a lot of your work, including having Leslie (Mann) and the girls (Maude and Iris Apatow) cast in your projects. Do you think that has been a bonding experience for your family?

I remember somebody saying that the best gift you could give somebody is your story. I’ve always been a believer that that is a wonderful way to connect with people: Share your experience. I certainly encourage my kids and my family to do that. I like living a created life. It’s fun to start your day waking up thinking about how to talk about this weird experience of living on Earth and finding ways to connect with people. I find it to be a very happy life, if my kids want to do it. They’re very smart and creative, if they’re interested in it. The whole idea of us collaborating has been nothing but positive. It forces you to think about how you see the world and the experiences you’ve had and to try to turn that into creativity and entertainment. It’s been hopefully positive, or I’m completely fooling myself and I’ve destroyed them.

In the special you have a bit about when to pull the plug on your own life. Have you been thinking about your own mortality more as you age?

As a Jewish man, I probably started thinking about that when I was 12. It hasn’t really changed over the years. I’ve always been in somewhat of an existential nightmare of my own creation, except now it’s becoming more vivid. I’m definitely someone who is obsessed with time. I’ve always been tracking it in probably very unhealthy ways. I’m not very religious, so I don’t have a ton to lean on spiritually, but I’ve tried to be open to new spiritual ideas. I’ll crack open some Buddhism books or some Eckhart Tolle, but I don’t think it gives me as much comfort as I wish it would.

Photo by Mark Seliger.

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